Making the Prom a Night of Promise: Teens Learn to Celebrate Sober

Schools turn peer pressure into a force for social responsibility

AS seniors at Taunton High School in suburban Boston prepare for their prom on June 1, they're arranging the usual pre-prom details -- booking limousines, buying formals, ordering corsages, planning decorations. But this year many are also spending time on a different activity: learning about the dangers of underage drinking so they can bar the doors against a destructive party-crasher -- alcohol.

All month students have been delivering anti-alcohol messages -- airing public-service announcements, staging contests, and signing contracts that they won't drink during the prom. Their efforts won the school $500 in a statewide ''Keep Prom Night Safe'' contest sponsored by an area insurance company.

''We're trying to change the norms,'' says Deborah Brown, drug-education coordinator for the Taunton schools. ''Instead of thinking that celebrating means drinking and partying under the influence of something, we want them to think about celebrating sober.''

Across the country, campaigns like this to prevent underage drinking and driving on prom night are increasing. In Massachusetts, this ''Krooz Controlled'' education program, sponsored by Arbella Mutual Insurance Company of Quincy, offers a training manual on peer education. Nationally, a ''Prom Promise'' campaign by Nationwide Insurance, now in its sixth year, encourages teenagers to pledge not to use drugs or alcohol on prom night. This year 3,600 high schools in 22 states are participating.

In 1993, 87 percent of high school seniors had used alcohol, and 32 percent had used marijuana, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Almost half a million high school students report that they go on weekly binges, consuming five or more drinks in a row.

All-night parties, often organized by parents to keep students off the road and away from the bottle, have become standard post-prom events in many communities. Yet not all prom-goers like such structured activity.

''Most of our students really don't want to be chaperoned all night,'' says Michelle DeSerres, faculty coordinator of Prom Promise at William Davies High School in Lincoln, R.I. Instead, they prefer to attend house parties or go to restaurants -- situations that leave students accountable for their own actions.

By encouraging teens to help each other avoid alcohol and drugs, educators hope to increase their sense of responsibility and change their attitudes about drinking.

''The whole 'designated driver' thing has become implanted in many kids' minds,'' says Paul Davis Jones, president of IDPR in Boston, the public relations firm that designed the Krooz Controlled program. ''They think it's all right to drink as long as you designate a sober driver or get somebody who is sober to drive you around.... These training programs say to kids that you don't have to drink -- that there are creative ways to avoid getting into a situation where drinking is part of the package.''

Lara De Costa, a student at Taunton High, sees value in teaching teens how to refuse. ''I really don't believe anyone wants to get in a car with someone who's drunk,'' she says. ''But they might not know how to approach the situation to get out of it. Some of these efforts are helping.''

According to Mary Sabine, coordinator of Prom Promise at Nationwide Insurance in Columbus, Ohio, the campaign draws a wide range of students, with participation averaging 65 percent. She says, ''In a lot of schools we ask the students, 'Is this the goody-two-shoes thing to do? Are other kids making fun of you for signing the pledge?' They're not.''

But educating students is only part of the solution. Paul Johnson of Quincy, Mass., a limousine driver for 10 years, finds many parents too complacent on prom night. ''Sometimes parents say, 'Oh, my kids have permission to drink,' '' Mr. Johnson says. ''Well, I don't give them permission to drink in my car. Others will throw their kids in the car and say, 'Be safe.' Either they don't know their kids are drinking, or they know and don't care.''

Parents who host house parties must be particularly vigilant. ''Even if they didn't supply the liquor, if a student left their home and had an accident, the liability is theirs,'' Ms. Brown says. ''They can't sit upstairs while the party is going on in the basement. They need to have a strong contract with their son or daughter prior to the party as to how to handle a situation where alcohol and other drugs are involved.''

Nor can parents and teachers think of underage drinking as only a seasonal problem. Making a case for ongoing education, Brown says, ''Kids don't just drink at prom time. If we're going to change the norms, they need to be changed all year round, not just at the festive occasions, the attention-getting times.''

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